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Will Words Fail Her?
Immigration Officials Snub Literary Sensation Yiyun Li Despite Her
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005; C01
Five years ago, Yiyun Li had a problem: How do you persuade the
literary world to take you seriously when you’re a 28-year-old native
Chinese speaker trying to write in English, you’ve published exactly
nothing and your training consists of a single adult-education class?
Since then, the Beijing-born Li’s career arc has been so steep it
gives her peers vertigo.
She’s had stories published in prestige magazines such as the New
Yorker and the Paris Review. She’s won the Pushcart Prize and the
Plimpton Prize for New Writers. Random House has signed her to a
$200,000, two-book contract, which Executive Editor Kate Medina calls
- in what qualifies as a serious understatement - “most unusual” for
a literary writer at this stage of her career. Her first book, a story
collection called “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” was published
this fall to wide praise.
Now she has another problem: How do you explain to the federal
immigration bureaucracy what the word “extraordinary” means?
In the summer of 2004, Li petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services to become a permanent resident of the United
States. To approve her application for a green card, USCIS would need
to agree that she was an artist of “extraordinary ability,” defined in
Title 8, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 204.5(h)(2) as “a level of
expertise indicating that the individual is one of that small
percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.”
To the upper echelons of literary publishing, Li looks like a
slam-dunk to meet this definition. Not to the USCIS, however. A year
after she filed it, her petition was rejected.
She has appealed. A USCIS spokesman says she is likely to get her
answer in a few weeks.
“Things change a lot,” as a character in one of Li’s stories says.
“Within a blink a mountain flattens and a river dries up. Nobody knows
who he’ll become tomorrow.”
‘A Zipper on Your Mouth’
No matter what happens with her immigration petition, the mountain has
already flattened for Yiyun Li: The changes she’s lived through in her
33 years are remarkable. When she talks about her childhood and how
she came to leave China for the United States, some memories—such
as her sister’s suggestion that she watch “Baywatch” to learn how
Americans dress—cause her to burst into infectious laughter.
Most do not.
There’s this memory, for example, from when she was 5: Police with a
loudspeaker tell everyone in her Beijing neighborhood to gather in a
field. They lead four men, bound with ropes, onto a temporary stage.
An officer announces that the men are to be executed soon, after being
displayed to similar gatherings in nearby neighborhoods.
“Death to the counterrevolutionary hooligans!” the officer shouts, fist
“It was like a celebration,” Li says now, on the phone from her office
at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where she recently accepted a
tenure-track teaching job. “I was in a celebrating mood, too.” Back
then, she didn’t know any better.
She learned. She watched her mother close the windows before speaking
of certain things. She saw her horrified looks when Li’s grandfather,
who had been known to call Mao Zedong “the king of Hell,” mouthed off
about the Communist Party. She absorbed repeated warnings “never to
say anything to anyone outside the house.”
Li was born in 1972, the year President Richard Nixon shocked the
world with his tete-a-tete with Chairman Mao. She came of age just as
China was laying the groundwork for its economic boom. She remembers
her physicist father traveling abroad and coming home with
descriptions of the beauty of Paris—and, just as important,
permission to import the family’s first refrigerator. She recalls
thinking: “I hope my life won’t be like this forever.”
She also remembers Tiananmen Square.
In the spring of 1989, as student-led protests began to build in
Beijing, Li was in high school, a 15-minute bike ride from the square.
Her parents were pessimistic from the beginning—“They said the
government would shoot at people”—but Li was more hopeful. She
found herself particularly moved by a group of middle-aged men she
recalls standing quietly by the side of the road. Their sign read: “We
have knelt down all our lives. This is our opportunity to stand up as
On the night the army crushed the protests, Li’s parents locked her in
her room. Her mother ventured out and came back crying, saying she’d
seen the body of an 8-year-old boy. The next morning, her father
reported seeing piles of bodies in a hospital bicycle garage. A good
friend was picked up for questioning.
“It was like 9/11,” she says. “Everybody knew somebody” who’d been in
the square that night.
Everybody in Beijing, perhaps. But Chinese television started saying
right away that no one had been killed, and many outside the capital
Two years later, Li found herself in the army. Fearing a repeat of the
democracy movement, the government had required all students entering
Peking University to go through a year of political reeducation first.
“Imagine a zipper on your mouth,” her mother told her as her army year
began. “Zip it up tight.” But as Li wrote last year in the British
magazine Prospect, she couldn’t control her anger. One day she found
herself telling her squad mates about the massacre.
“Was it true people got killed?” a young woman asked.
“Don’t spread rumors,” her squad leader said.
After her outburst, Li became terrified of reprisals. She was lucky.
The squad leader reported her, but the officer who got the report
chose not to pass it on.
‘I Couldn’t Write in Chinese’
Out of the army, studying biology, Li focused on one goal: to get into
an American graduate school. She got into four and chose the
University of Iowa, in part because she could do immunology there.
Li had a boyfriend in China, to whom she is now married, but for the
time being he stayed behind. Lonely, she signed up for an
adult-education writing class, the kind mainly populated by
middle-aged women at loose ends. The teacher singled her out for
encouragement. For years that remained her only contact with other
“I wrote by myself,” she says.
In the fall of 2000, about to turn 28 and closing in on her immunology
PhD, she started to panic—because she’d realized that she really
wanted to be a writer. She talked to her adviser and arranged to leave
the program with a master’s degree. The next summer, she signed up for
a class taught by short-story virtuoso James Alan McPherson, a
Pulitzer Prize winner.
McPherson’s Southern accent flummoxed her—“I couldn’t understand
most of what he said”—but one particular point he made got through.
In the Western world, and especially in America, he told the class,
the focus is so much on the individual that “we have lost the
community voice.” But that voice is still present in writing from
countries such as China and Japan.
Something clicked. Before long, Li was showing McPherson a story
called “Immortality.” Written from the point of view of an entire
town, using the first person plural, its first sentence reads: “This
story, as the story of every one of us, started long before we were
McPherson thought it was wonderful. “It’s what a teacher lives for,” he
Li says she was still so timid that “it blew my mind that a great
- a great human being - even noticed me.”
She and her writing, however, soon were getting noticed more and more.
Admitted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—widely viewed as the best
graduate writing program in the country—she wound up earning two
additional master’s degrees, one in fiction and one in creative
nonfiction. Long before she finished them, she sold “Immortality” to
the Paris Review. She sold another story to the New Yorker. Random
House’s Medina came to speak at Iowa in November 2003, and at some
point was given both stories to read. She thinks she read
“Immortality” on the flight back to New York.
“I remember just starting to shake, it was so good,” Medina says.
“I’ve been an editor for 150 years, and I don’t jump off planes and
buy books based on one story”—but that’s essentially what she did,
signing Li to her two-book deal in a matter of weeks.
The first book was “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.” Its 10 stories
are populated by “natives and exiles of post-Mao, post-Tiananmen
China,” as The Washington Post’s reviewer put it: ordinary people who
are “victims of tradition and change, of old barbarities and recent
upheavals.” Each story, the review concluded, “feels fresh, wise and
alive, creating a fascinating, horrifying and heartbreaking picture of
life in a country where the past never goes away.”
In “Extra,” an old woman has to figure out how to live after being
“honorably retired” with no pension from a bankrupt garment factory.
In “The Princess of Nebraska,” a young Chinese immigrant is drawn to
the strange American concept of “moving on.” In “Immortality,” a
provincial Chinese town watches with reverent fascination as a young
man’s uncanny resemblance to Chairman Mao leads to a career as an
official Mao impersonator—a career that parallels, oddly and
tragically, those of the eunuchs the town used to send to the imperial
Short summaries can’t capture the complex poignancy of the worlds Li
creates. Her style is straightforward, but McPherson thinks she’s
“reinvigorating the English language with rhythms and ways of speech
that are found in Chinese.”
More important, perhaps, writing in English has reinvigorated Li.
“Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express
your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk
more in the new language,” a young woman says to her father in Li’s
title story. “It makes you a new person.”
“I couldn’t write in Chinese,” Li says, acknowledging the
autobiographical component of her character’s observation. She held
herself back both because she’d grown up in a family reluctant to
express emotions directly and because of the oppressive political
imperative to keep her lip zipped. In high school, she once ripped up
something she’d written about Tiananmen Square just before she was to
hand it in to her teacher. While in the army, she kept a journal but
wrote only nature descriptions.
“When I wrote in Chinese, I censored myself,” she says. “I feel very
lucky that I’ve discovered a language I can use.”
The first immigration lawyer Li consulted was recommended by scientist
friends. When he found out she was a writer, she says, he told her
she’d have to be “the second coming of Ernest Hemingway” for her
petition to succeed.
She found another lawyer and filed for permanent residency in August
2004. She heard nothing for nine months, then USCIS asked for more
information. In her original application, she had relied heavily on
writers and editors she knew, many of them connected to the Writers’
Workshop. The immigration bureau asked, among other things, for
evidence that those outside her “circle of colleagues and
acquaintances” considered her work significant.
Li and her friends scrambled to get additional testimonials to her
“extraordinary ability.” They came up with more than 20, among them:
Novelist and PEN American Center President Salman Rushdie, who noted
“the exceedingly steep trajectory of her still-young career,” reviewed
Li’s record of publication and prizes, pointed out that the kind of
“far-reaching interest and buzz” she has generated is “extremely rare”
and concluded that “Yiyun Li is the real thing.”
New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who wrote that the magazine he runs
is “dedicated to identifying young writers who are destined to become
the leading writers of their generation,” named Li as one of these and
described her as possessing “a remarkable voice that we hadn’t heard
before and an extraordinary way of writing about characters caught in
a rapidly changing society.”
Novelist Elinor Lipman, who unknowingly touched on the skeptical
lawyer’s criterion for success. Lipman wrote that, although she had
never met Li, “reading her rsum is like getting a glimpse of an early
F. Scott Fitzgerald or a young Hemingway.” She also wrote that, for a
fiction writer, the New Yorker was “the pinnacle, a no-man’s land,
and, for 99.9 percent of the world’s writers, only a dream.”
None of this helped.
Li’s submission, according to the decision from USCIS’s Nebraska
Service Center, was “not persuasive” that she had “risen to the very
top of the field of endeavor.” The decision also denied that “any
specific works by the petitioner are particularly renowned as
significant contemporary writing.”
The problem, Li’s supporters think, may be a failure to understand the
intensely competitive world of literary publishing.
“Yiyun Li is a huge success in literary fiction,” Medina says. “But
how does that read,” she wonders, to someone unfamiliar with the
context for her accomplishments?
Asked about this, USCIS senior public affairs officer Christopher
Bentley said it would be “premature for us as an organization” to
comment on Li’s case now. “Everything is working exactly the way it
should,” Bentley said. “A decision was made, the decision was
disagreed with, the customer took advantage of her right to appeal
In late September, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” won the Frank
O’Connor International Short Story Award, which carries a prize of
50,000 euros. The award came too late to be included in Li’s appeal.
Li doesn’t know what she’ll do if the appeal is denied. She has a
temporary visa that will permit her to keep working in the United
States for several more years, after which she might try again for
permanent residency status.
If she can’t be an American, it is not clear who she will become.
Listen to the real audio of This American life:
the David and Goliath episode (from 12/2/05)
Their description of this episode:
Three stories of people attempting extraordinary things to balance the scales between David and Goliaths of all kinds. Children, nations, and retail shoppers alike.
Prologue. Lisa LaBorde has two daughters, and having grown up an only child, she can’t understand why they fight all the time. Her idea of sisterhood is more like a scene from The Sound of Music. Wanting to create that kind of bond for her girls, Lisa decides to enlist the aid of science to see if she can turn these enemies into friends, in just a month. (5 minutes)
Act One. Lab Rugrats. Continuing from our prologue, Ira Glass checks in with Lisa and her older daughter, Kennedy, to see how the experiment went. After a month, they’ve charted surprising results, learned that the girls aren’t the only ones in the house who need to change, and found out just how much money it takes to get a twelve-year-old to play with a five-year-old. (13 minutes)
Song: “It’s a Shame,” Monie Love
Act Two. Dreams of Distant Factories. Rachel Louise Snyder reports on the struggle to save the Cambodian economy. Right now, Cambodia is competing with other nations for the business of big clothing companies all over the world, buyers like the Gap, Nike, Adidas. But they’ve vowed to follow fair labor practices, which, while eliminating sweatshops for workers, also makes their costs higher. Other countries end up with the contracts – and the profits. So an official Cambodian committee sets out on a mission to convince the U.S. Congress to give them a special trade agreement, before time runs out. With additional reporting by Producer Lisa Pollack. (30 minutes)
Song: “Such a Little Thing Makes Such a Big Difference,” Morrissey
Act Three. Adventures at Poo Corner. David Sedaris uncovers a disturbing and hidden trend that’s taking place where small-minded people collide with big retail stores. (5 minutes)
Postscript. Ira discusses the continuing rhetoric from the Bush Administration on pre-war intelligence and why, given their size and power, a growing chorus of smaller voices still aren’t being heard. (2 minutes)
Song: “Boss of Me,” by They Might Be Giants
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